Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962
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"Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up to and overtake Britain in less than 15 years The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives." So opens Frank Dikötter's riveting, magnificently detailed chronicle of an era in Chinese history much speculated about but never before fully documented because access to Communist Party archives has long been restricted to all but the most trusted historians. A new archive law has opened up thousands of central and provincial documents that "fundamentally change the way one can study the Maoist era." Dikötter makes clear, as nobody has before, that far from being the program that would lift the country among the world's superpowers and prove the power of Communism, as Mao imagined, the Great Leap Forward transformed the country in the other direction. It became the site not only of "one of the most deadly mass killings of human history,"--at least 45 million people were worked, starved, or beaten to death--but also of "the greatest demolition of real estate in human history," as up to one-third of all housing was turned into rubble). The experiment was a catastrophe for the natural world as well, as the land was savaged in the maniacal pursuit of steel and other industrial accomplishments. In a powerful mesghing of exhaustive research in Chinese archives and narrative drive, Dikötter for the first time links up what happened in the corridors of power-the vicious backstabbing and bullying tactics that took place among party leaders-with the everyday experiences of ordinary people, giving voice to the dead and disenfranchised. His magisterial account recasts the history of the People's Republic of China.
of back-breaking labour, the willingness to trade hard work for empty promises gradually eroded. Soon, the only way to extract compliance from an exhausted workforce was the threat of violence. Nothing short of fear of hunger, pain or death seemed to be able to galvanise them. In some places both villagers and cadres became so brutalised that the scope and degree of coercion had to be constantly expanded, creating a mounting spiral of violence. With far fewer carrots to offer, the party relied
the villagers – against all odds – or instead try to meet the party’s targets. The one came at the expense of the other. Most took the path of least resistance. Once that choice had been made, violence assumed its own logic. In conditions of widespread penury it was impossible to keep everybody alive. There simply was not enough food left in the village to provide even reliable farmers with an adequate diet, and in the climate of mass repression following the 1959 Lushan plenum it did not look as
(1998), pp. 125–40. Lin Yunhui, Wutuobang yundong: Cong dayuejin dao dajihuang, 1958–1961 (Utopian movement: From the Great Leap Forward to the Great Famine, 1958–1961), Hong Kong: Xianggang zhongwen daxue dangdai Zhongguo wenhua yanjiu zhongxin, 2008. Liu Chongwen, Chen Shaochou et al. (eds), Liu Shaoqi nianpu, 1898–1969 (A chronicle of Liu Shaoqi’s life), Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1996. Lu Xiaobo, Cadres and Corruption: The Organizational Involution of the Chinese Communist
situation in general is excellent. There are many problems, but our future is bright!’4 Silence followed Mao’s speech. But not everybody was willing to fall in line. Defence minister Peng Dehuai was well known for being stubborn. When Peng had gone back to his home in Xiangtan, Hunan, the same region where Mao had grown up, he found abuse and suffering everywhere, from farmers forced to practise close cropping to cadres tearing down houses in the iron and steel campaign. Visiting a retirement
now that things are much better than in those days, we want to fasten our belts and try to pay the money back within five years.’7 On 5 August 1960, even before the departure of all Soviet specialists was completed, provincial leaders were warned by phone that the country was not exporting enough, as it was heading towards a deficit in the balance of payments of 2 billion yuan. Every effort had to be made to honour the Soviet debt within two years, and this had to be done by increasing exports of